Page last updated at 17:36 GMT, Thursday, 19 February 2009

Tayeb Salih: Arabic literary giant

Sudanese novelist Tayeb Salih, who won fame with his 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, died in London this week, aged about 80.

Anwar Hamed, the acclaimed author's former BBC Arabic Service colleague, says he bestrode the world of Arabic literature like a colossus.

Undated file pic of Tayeb Salih in Khartoum

Literary critics of all schools agree that Tayeb Salih conquered the world just as Mustafa Said, the hero of his novel, The Season of Migration to the North, conquered the streets, bars and academic institutions of Europe.

Yet he did not leave behind the stereotypical image of Sudan, his was a wondrous desert world haunted by mysteries, secrets and romantic tales.

Salih's characters, immersed in local colour, were able to speak a language easily understood by his readers even those who could not get to grips with the rural Sudanese expressions he used.

Convictions and contradictions

In The Wedding of Zein and Dumat Wad Hamed, Salih conveys the atmosphere of a Sudanese village with such vitality that the characters seem like three dimensional people.

The Season of Migration to the North
The Wedding of Zein
Dumat Wad Hamed
The Light from the House
Bandar Shah

In the Season of Migration to the North, he deliberately focuses on the contradictions innate in the social and moral convictions held by his society.

In all his works, Salih's unique talent for building characters, weaving the background against which they live and revealing their social origins shines through the dialogue that reverberates with life, even when it is immersed in local details.

His critically acclaimed novel, The Season of Migration to the North, was no exception.

It was a distinct landmark in the history of the Arab novel.

Some even consider it one of the greatest 100 novels of all time.

Powerful voices

In the book, the dialogue written for the English characters may be weak and not ring true.

Tayeb Salih at BBC studios in London in 1965
Portrait of the artist as a young man: Salih at BBC studios in London in 1965

But the Sudanese characters are clearly drawn and convincing in terms of their roots, culture and social origins.

Their voices can be heard powerfully, whether they are in a cotton field, a London pub, resounding with the echo of brazen laughter at crude jokes.

Women and girls fall at the feet of the novel's hero, who arrives from the jungles of Africa.

Their curiosity makes them desperate to glimpse the world he comes from, a world filled with the aroma of sandalwood and tales of love while he works his overpowering Oriental magic to capture his prey, one after the other.

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Sudan novelist Tayeb Salih dies
18 Feb 09 |  Africa
Country profile: Sudan
29 Jan 09 |  Country profiles


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